Thrift Culture: Threading The Needle

A look into the thrifting trend, and what it means to partake in it ethically.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Stacey Chen

In the past few years, we have increasingly seen maximalist Y2K fashion come back in the trend cycle and Gen Z’s disillusionment with big brands and fast fashion; with these also come the general rise of TikTok hauls, Depop (an e-commerce app designed to sell secondhand clothing) resellers, and recycled clothing. It seems that thrifting is back in vogue after all. And for good reason: it’s a more sustainable way to partake in the whims of the fashion industry. Thrifting supports a circular clothing economy and environmental sustainability. This means that it minimizes waste and allows for clothes to be reused. This is helpful in a world where the fashion industry makes up 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second-biggest consumer of water. Despite these seemingly beneficial characteristics the newfound popularity of thrifting can fall into the trap of perpetuating inequality rather than reducing it. Specifically, it harms low-income communities that have historically used thrifting to buy necessities for lower prices.

Historically, thrift stores were designed to help low-income communities access affordable clothing. They were run by larger charitable organizations, such as the Salvation Army, that sell used goods donated by the general public. For a while up into the late 2010s, a stigma surrounded second-hand clothing that deterred the upper class from thrifting. But now, most people agree that the thrifting scene has become increasingly gentrified as a result of its rise in popularity (largely due to its alignment with the trend of eco-friendly consumption), leading people who would otherwise buy from other places to go to thrift stores. This can be a problem for people who can’t afford clothing from elsewhere, as prices can be raised when demand grows and the intended audience shifts to a new, more privileged demographic. 

It’s more nuanced than preaching that upper-class people shouldn’t thrift at all. But what the rich may see as a fun activity for a rainy day, the lower class may rely on for their standard of living. Many people rely on thrift stores to purchase suits for job interviews or winter coats. A large percentage of donated clothes to thrift stores ends up going to the trash anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter who buys them as long as they’re bought. But if thrifting simply fuels unnecessary overconsumption and consumerism, it misses the point. 

Personally, I enjoy thrifting: I find that it’s a good way to discover my identity through a style that isn’t just completely what the corporate fast-fashion likes of Zara and H&M shove in our faces. It can come down to the thrill of the hunt. Digging through Goodwill bins is like a game that sometimes rewards me with high-quality finds that would have otherwise been extremely expensive to buy firsthand. Of course, supposed affordability is one of the biggest factors that attract people to thrifting. 

Yet, the rise of resellers, people who make a living off of finding vintage or expensive clothing for cheap in thrift stores and selling them for a higher price, begs the question of its morality and the consequences it has on the practice of thrifting. Some complain that resellers who competitively comb through thrift shops all in the name of a side hustle make it harder to find good things, while others find that they serve as middlemen and provide a valid service by sorting through clothes and selling them. 

A big complaint against resellers is their unfair profit margins. Resellers profit from buying products at a low price and then selling them to customers for a higher price. Resellers are often associated with the negative trope that they buy out racks of high-quality clothes and leave the ratty leftovers for those who really need them. However, I don’t fully agree with this conception. As shown by the numerous pounds of thrift store donations that end up in the trash, there is more than enough to go around. There are definitely ways to ethically resell without following the path of ticket scalpers and grifters. Most experts agree that when reselling, it’s good to have a niche, such as plus-size, vintage, or ‘70s clothing. Tim Tietz argues, “You'll also grow faster if you focus on a niche because your marketing will be more dialed in than others. While your competitor is out there trying to appeal to several markets at once and fumbling with getting any traction with his efforts, you'll be pulling in many more leads by zeroing in on a niche market.” This way, people are more aware of the privilege of thrifting for fun as they search for one particular brand or style rather than grabbing things willy-nilly. It also limits the possibility of resellers emptying a store’s stock just to flip it on eBay the next day. Genuine reselling gigs require a good eye for authenticity, dedication, and a knowledge of how inventory and engagement work. The notorious overcharging of resellers comes down to many factors, but sustainability isn’t always one of them. 

However, the questionable morality surrounding thrifting is not solely the responsibility of the individuals buying and reselling. Large thrift corporations aren’t just sunshine and rainbows either. Thrift store giants, such as Goodwill, have frequently come under fire for their shady practices and lack of transparency. Goodwill Industries International has been a giant in the nonprofit industry for over 120 years: they stand for the values of sustainability, community, and education, using most of their earnings to fund charitable activities such as job training. But the corporation isn’t completely philanthropic. Research has shown that Goodwill ships electronic waste and unwanted donations to developing countries and exploits disabled employees to pay them as little as 22 cents an hour. The company relies on donations to provide essential services and cheap necessities to the community, but it continuously sweeps the problem of providing adequate employee wages under the rug while giving unreasonably high salaries to its executives. It demonstrates the irony that big thrifting corporations can be just as bad as regular department stores. We need to hold these operations accountable for their hypocrisy instead of turning a blind eye to the shoppers they’re hurting. Thrifting while ignoring these larger moral deficits is a privilege that circles back to those who can shop as a hobby.  

Therefore, it all comes back to conscious consumption. The singular appeal of thrifting when you don’t need to should never just come down to the shock factor of cheap products and the treasure hunt of the deal. Secondhand shopping’s sustainable purpose isn’t the same when it’s simply used as an alternative to mimic fast fashion instead of pushing back against it. Thrift stores do more than provide lower-cost clothing: they were made to serve communities and balance systemic disparities. If you find that you’re only taking rather than giving, consider donating high-quality clothes, volunteering, or simply being aware of who and what you’re taking from. Responsible thrifting should prioritize transparency and mindfulness in order to promote sustainable shopping and thrifting for future generations to come.